Thinking the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Through

PewRack

There’s just over a month left till the URCNA’s tenth synod convenes in Wyoming, MI, and my guess is that many of our elders and pastors feel like they’ve been punched in the face by the recently-released 566-page provisional agenda. Our federation needs to make many difficult decisions this summer related to positions on current cultural issues, unity with other denominations, liturgical forms, and, of course, the Psalter Hymnal project.

If you’re struggling to wade through the provisional agenda, you may find Revs. Mark Vander Pol and Norman Van Eeden Petersman’s 16-page overview helpful. I don’t think I’ll be blogging (slogging?) through the agenda’s various materials related to the songbook project as I did back in 2012, but I’ll attempt to make some summarizing remarks in this post.

To my knowledge, the report from the Psalter Hymnal Committee on pp. 163-174 of the provisional agenda is the first public communication from the committee since last fall. A few readers have expressed the opinion that the committee is failing to communicate important information to the churches. I tend to disagree, since the very presence of the PsalterHymnal.org website with every psalm and hymn to be included in the collection goes above and beyond the committee’s mandate. At the same time, I understand this frustration, since updates about the project tend come from magazines like New Horizons or The Outlook—second- or even third-hand—and not from the committee itself. The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2013! It is hard to fault an overworked and understaffed committee for this, but I do fear that the scarcity of information is hindering the churches’ view of the project.

In any case, the Psalter Hymnal Committee provides these updates in their report:

  • They have named the book the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
  • They are continuing to edit and obtain copyright permissions for the psalter section.
  • They have completed the list of songs for the (new) Hymn Proposal.
  • They have decided that the Liturgical Forms Committee should publish the URCNA’s new liturgical forms in a separate booklet from the songbook.
  • They have decided to leave pronouns referring to God uncapitalized and to retain archaic language (including the name “Jehovah”) in classic hymns.
  • They have decided on the basic contents of the songbook (introductory essays, indices, etc.).

Unfortunately, the report remains unclear as to what action the Psalter Hymnal Committee expects Synod 2016 to take besides approving the hymn section. The mention of the name change to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, for instance—is that decision final, or are they requesting that it be approved on the floor as part of “receiving the work of the committee to date”? Similarly, the report cites a separate recommendation from the Liturgical Forms Committee about publishing a separate liturgical forms booklet, but this recommendation is actually missing from both committees’ reports (as Vander Pol and Van Eeden Petersman note). If I am not the only one confused by the structure of this report, the synodical process is likely to become jammed in trying to untangle the actions implied in these pages.

As readers of URC Psalmody know, I am a passionate advocate for a new denominational Psalter Hymnal. And I believe it is possible to utilize the discussions and deliberations on the floor of synod to refine the finished product into the best songbook it can be. But it is only possible when elders, consistories, classes, synods, and standing committees each understand the nature and extent of the authority they have been given to make decisions. Unfortunately, the URCNA still struggles to define the power of its various ecclesiastical bodies, and I think that confusion is revealed in this report along with so many of the other materials submitted to Synod 2016. I’m not suggesting any one of the bodies involved is to blame, but (like the huge overtures at Synod 2012) I am afraid it may be a disaster to place so much material before a synod that doesn’t know what it is expected to approve.

When I published my argument for the new Psalter Hymnal in the March/April issue of The Outlook, one of the strongest objections I received from readers related to the location of authority in the church. Many URCNA members fear that a denominational songbook represents a shift toward centralized government, what one commenter called “federalism” in the churches. To the contrary, it is argued, local consistories have the exclusive jurisdiction over what gets sung in a congregation’s worship.

As others have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The authority of local consistories and the authority delegated to synod are not contradictory. One arises from the other. And it should be possible to make decisions for the common good of the churches without ignoring the needs and circumstances of local congregations. But the misunderstanding persists, and it goes far beyond the question of a new Psalter Hymnal to the problems of ecumenical relations, joint church orders, and more. What does unity really mean? Until we pause to answer that question, I think the road to a denominational songbook will remain rough.

–MRK

“Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal”

I suppose making a blog post on April Fools’ Day might be a somewhat unwise decision. Maybe you opened this post expecting a satire piece about Crown & Covenant’s recent release of The Book of Psalms for Worship, Hip-Hop Edition, or about the recent finding that John Calvin’s personal copy of the Genevan Psalter had “The Heart of Worship” pasted inside the back cover.

Alas, I bring you neither of those things today; the article I’m sharing today is a genuine one. It’s my most recent contribution to The Outlook magazine, entitled “Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal.” In it I argue that the URCNA needs to adopt a federational songbook, even if there are still many things about the new book that don’t line up with the personal preferences of myself or others. The article has generated a lot of feedback via email and Facebook, so I thought I would invite you to join the conversation here as well, especially as Synod 2016 and the prospect of a final vote draw near. I’m happy to hear opposing points of view and interact with fellow URCNA members who have given significant thought to this issue.

These two paragraphs pretty much summarize my opinion as regards the new book:

‘Have it your way’ may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

That’s all for now!

–MRK

This Brief Journey (Review)

ThisBriefJourneyAs a busy college student, I never budget enough time for studying God’s Word—and I imagine the same is true for many readers of this blog. This means I need to continually discipline myself to read the Bible and pray more diligently and more consistently. But it also means I’m on the lookout for short, manageable devotional aids that can help me accomplish these goals. One such resource is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents (128 pp., DayOne, 2012). (A later companion volume exists, To Be a Pilgrim, but I haven’t yet read it.)

Dodson, a PCA minister with a PhD in Old Testament, considers the first eight psalms of ascents (Psalms 120-127) in this short book. Perhaps because they grew from sermons delivered to his congregation, Dodson’s meditations are imbued with brevity, clarity, and pastoral warmth. Each chapter carefully expounds on the original context of the psalm, the imagery used by the psalmist, the structure of the text, the personal application for today, and—best of all—the various ways in which Christ is foreshadowed. Dodson’s concluding thougths on Psalm 127 are an excellent example:

[Y]our home will be empty unless you fill it with Christ. Fill your home with his Word. Fill it with prayer. Cultivate family worship. But don’t just go through the motions. Seek to develop with your children a hunger for God himself. Ask the Lord to incline your heart to him, so that family worship nurtures a spiritual frame of mind.

A day is coming when the Lord Jesus will return. Our work will be over; our families will be swallowed up in the family of God that is heaven. What will matter on that great day is that we find everything in Christ. Your life at work and your life at home should lead you to seek the Savior. Empty labor and a full quiver—both should drive you to God. (pp. 123, 124)

All in all, I’ve found This Brief Journey to be an accessible and edifying introduction to the psalms of ascents. It has driven me to better understand the lives of Old Testament believers, Christ’s life as the ultimate Singer of the psalms, and my own life in light of God’s redemptive plan. May it do the same for you as well!

–MRK

A Words-Only Psalter (Review)

bopfw_words

A few months ago Crown & Covenant Publications (that’s right, those Pittsburgh psalm-singing gurus) sent me a review copy of a new edition of The Book of Psalms for Worship. Notwithstanding their current selection of hardcover, softcover, loose-leaf, spiral-bound, large-print, lavender, sage, slim, mini, and slim-mini psalters, this latest release was something unique: a words-only edition (574 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015).

To be honest, I was a bit puzzled. I’m not very familiar with words-only metrical psalters, and I’ve never sung from one in a church service. And being a musician at heart and not a poet, it was hard not to get the feeling that the new book, as it were, took the filling right out of my Oreo.

But after some more investigation, I came to conclude that maybe a text-based psalter isn’t such a crazy idea. Here are some of the advantages to using this words-only psalter (for which I’ll use the ungainly acronym WOP) rather than other editions of The Book of Psalms for Worship:

  • Do-it-yourself psalm-singing. The publisher’s note inside the WOP mentions “its flexibility in matching various tunes with a particular versification.” This means if you don’t like the tune to which a particular psalm is set in the regular Book of Psalms for Worship, you can easily replace it with a different tune of the same meter. A handy metrical index is included in the back.
  • Historical precedent. Although the idea of a songbook without music may strike us as odd, such was the norm just a few centuries ago (followed by the transitional form of the “Dutch door” or “split-leaf” psalter, which Jim introduced here). Even today text-only metrical psalters like the Trinity Psalter are still in print. Ultimately, of course, a text-only psalter reflects the layout of the Book of Psalms itself.
  • The end of verse- and stanza-confusion. When the song leader directs you to sing “verse 2,” do you ever wonder if they mean the second stanza of poetry or literally the second verse of the psalm text? The WOP eliminates this problem by differentiating stanzas with paragraph breaks rather than numerals.
  • Readability for non-musicians. If you struggle to read lyrics spread out over several lines of musical notation, you will love the WOP. Each psalm is laid out line-by-line in clear, readable paragraphs, like a book of poetry. (On the other hand, I could argue that even non-musical congregants should use a words-and-music psalter in order to become familiar with how text and tune interact.)

To be fair, I have to admit that I’ve noticed some drawbacks to the new psalter as well:

  • Not very useful as a standalone edition. The WOP presumes that its owner, or at least the song leader, also owns a regular copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship from which to obtain the tunes. The WOP is useful by itself only if a user prefers to read a metrical version of the psalms rather than a prose version.
  • Disappointing size savings. I hoped the WOP would be the size of a pocket New Testament or smaller, something on the order of 2” x 3” for ultimate portability. Sadly, it remains substantially larger (though, I guess, more readable) than the words-and-music slim-mini editions.
  • Awkward lyrics have nowhere to hide. A tenet of good psalmody is that the text should be able to stand on its own as clear, smooth, attractive poetry. While much of The Book of Psalms for Worship is excellently versified, it includes more than its share of stilted settings (46C is one example). And with a words-only psalter, there’s no music to mask these blemishes.

Whatever deficiencies it may have, I would gladly call The Book of Psalms for Worship one of the best English metrical psalters currently available (and so would Jim, who reviewed the other editions here). The words-only edition is an opportunity for Crown & Covenant to capitalize on the success of an already excellent book. But as I hope even the publishers would admit, these new branches on the growing tree of psalm-singing should never become the final ones, as we continue the quest to sing the Word of God more faithfully and more joyfully.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

Spirit, Screamo, and Psalm-Singing

IMG_1773eThanks to my current college classes I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Even if we don’t often pause to consider it, it’s a subject most of us have at least some appreciation for. You could probably describe your idea of a cozy house, a sleek office building, or a majestic church just by how the structure is put together.

Architecture is fascinating because it can give us clues about the attitudes behind the buildings as well. Houses are built with separate rooms for individual people to sleep in, but also common areas for families to share meals and other day-to-day activities. Office buildings tend to be designed in tightly-packed cubes to optimize space and maximize productivity. Churches, at least old ones, often include lots of filtered light and upward-pointing lines in an effort to set the sanctuary apart from the workaday world.

I was reminded of the descriptive power of architecture just the other day, when the Alliance Defending Freedom released a video explaining my college’s current legal battle against the abortifacient mandate of Obamacare. The video contains footage of both Geneva’s campus and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and as a professor noted, the difference in architecture is immediately striking. Massive bureaucracy on one hand contrasts with small but vibrant community on the other. You don’t even have to begin by knowing the people inside each organization; you can see it in the buildings.

The point is this: Different architecture reflects different spirits. The way something was put together does–or should–reveal something about what its creators valued. And the same is true for music.

Music has its own kind of architecture: plain or ornate, simple or complex, for one voice or many. Music, too, conveys attitudes and beliefs about the world in which it is created. And when you consider psalm-singing alongside the dominant music of contemporary society, the result is again a study in contrasts.

Think about the structure behind “pop” music genres like screamo and dubstep–the piercing vocals, the guitar riffs, the electronic manipulation, even just the sheer volume. All of these traits certainly seem to send the message (what T. David Gordon would call a “meta-message”) that edginess and entertainment value are the supreme goals of the music. The content of music and lyrics may be trivial, but that doesn’t matter; the medium was created merely for mass consumption, and that’s what counts.

A good topic for another day would be to try to answer whether the genre of “contemporary Christian music” sends a different message. I’m afraid much of it doesn’t. But let’s skip this category of music, along with the older category of hymns, and go back to the psalms. What does the architecture of psalm-singing (not even the content, but just the structures and patterns of psalm-singing) reveal? I’d love to hear your thoughts, but for now, here are a few of my own:

  • Psalm-singing reveals a common identity. When we sing psalms in church, we don’t perform solos. Neither do we let a group of people stand at the front of the sanctuary and do the singing for us. No, we sing together, both in unison and in harmony, affirming that we are all members of the universal body of Christ.
  • Psalm-singing opposes the idea of performance. Groups like my college choir may occasionally sing psalms in concert, but congregational psalm-singing has never been designed around performance. To be honest, a lot of congregational psalm-singing sounds pretty rough around the edges. But in the era of squeaky-clean digital mastering, we may need to be reminded that there are reasons to sing other than “sounding good.”
  • Psalm-singing legitimizes a wide range of emotions. In contrast to the limited emotional vocabulary of pop music, the psalms treat a vast spectrum of life experiences with a vast spectrum of emotional responses. If we take psalm-singing seriously, our worship will include a variety of moods and subjects, some of which we may not be particularly comfortable with. And that’s the point: over time, psalm-singing prepares us for all the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  • Psalm-singing reveals an attitude of worship. The psalms address God so frequently that this point almost seems unnecessary–but it isn’t. The ultimate recipient of our singing isn’t the giant crowd in a mosh pit, nor is it even an auditorium full of fellow believers. The primary reason for our singing isn’t to share our thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, it’s to communicate with God.

Different architecture, different spirits–and may the Spirit that dwells within us impart a God-honoring (and refreshingly different) shape to the songs we sing!

–MRK


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